Declaring a drinking water emergency

Access to a safe and reliable source of drinking water is essential.

Water suppliers have a duty under the Water Services Act 2021 to ensure they provide enough safe drinking water to the communities they serve, for ordinary drinking and sanitary needs.

If a supplier identifies a potential risk to water quality or the amount of water available, we expect them to take all reasonable steps to address these issues.

In addition to taking steps to manage any immediate risk, suppliers also need to develop long-term solutions to prevent similar situations happening again in the future.

As the drinking water regulator for Aotearoa, we also have a role to play.

Our vision is safe water every day, for everyone. We’re committed to a future where everyone can trust the quality of drinking water that’s supplied to them and has enough safe water.

If the amount of safe water available for people to drink and meet their hygiene needs comes under pressure, we:

  • encourage drinking water suppliers to get in touch with us early, so that we can understand potential risks to public health
  • monitor the situation and connect with other organisations, as part of a joined-up response
  • provide advice on actions water suppliers can take to ensure enough safe water can be made available to consumers
  • can issue directions requiring suppliers, or others, to take specific actions to reduce risks.

Where there is a serious risk to public health, the Water Services Act 2021 (s 59) enables us to declare a drinking water emergency.

If your water supply is disrupted, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is an emergency

Waters suppliers are permitted to restrict or interrupt supply for up to eight hours for a range of reasons, including to carry out essential work on the water network.

This could mean water is unavailable for a short time, when there is not an emergency situation.

Doing your bit to help by conserving water

Conserving water is critical during long spells of dry weather or if the water available is under pressure.

But there are some simple things all of us can do every day - no matter the weather – to help make sure water is there when it’s needed.

Read our top tips for conserving water

 

Drinking water emergency

Drinking water emergency

Because safe water is essential to health, the Water Services Act 2021 contains a provision that enables us to declare a drinking water emergency when there is a serious risk to public health, due to poor water quality or lack of water, or both.

Responding to serious risk to public health

A drinking water emergency can only be declared if we believe there’s a serious risk to public health.

Before declaring a drinking water emergency, we’ll also usually want to make sure that other options to avert or address the risks have already been taken. So, we work alongside others to consider options available to drinking water suppliers, other organisations, and us that could help ensure people continue to have the enough safe water to drink and maintain personal hygiene.

Requirements before an emergency is declared

We would only declare a drinking water emergency after consulting with:

  • public health experts, including the relevant medical officer of health
  • Minister of Local Government.

What a declaration permits

What a declaration permits

If we declare a drinking water emergency, it makes a range of powers available to us to address a serious risk to public health.

This includes requiring people or organisations to “take immediate action, that Taumata Arowai believes, on reasonable grounds, will prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health”. (Water Services Act 2021 (s 62(2)(a)))

So, if we declare a drinking water emergency, we also need to be clear on what actions we believe will most effectively address the serious risk to public health.

Where water quantity is an issue, that can involve actions to:

  • decrease demand for water, or
  • increase the supply of water available for the community.

That means, as long as it was reasonable, under a drinking water emergency we could take steps like:

  • directing consumers to reduce their water use
  • temporarily restricting supply to businesses that use a lot of water
  • cancelling public events that might impose large burdens on the water supply network
  • requiring water suppliers to truck in water from neighbouring areas
  • permitting a water supplier to take more water than their resource consent conditions ordinarily allow for
  • doing anything else we think is reasonably necessary to prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health.

Different situations would need different actions to ensure people have enough safe water.

So, to start, we ask suppliers and others to provide information to enable us to determine which powers would most effectively reduce the risk to public health in that specific situation.

62 Special powers of Taumata Arowai during drinking water emergency

Section 62 of the Water Services Act 2021 lists the powers available to use during a drinking water emergency:

62 Special powers of Taumata Arowai during drinking water emergency

(1) If a drinking water emergency declaration is in force, Taumata Arowai may exercise all or any of the powers in subsection (2) for the purpose of preventing, reducing, or eliminating the serious risk to public health.

(2) The powers are to—

(a) take immediate action, or direct any person to take immediate action, that Taumata Arowai believes, on reasonable grounds, will prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health:

(b) direct any person to stop, or prohibit any person from starting, anything that Taumata Arowai believes, on reasonable grounds, is a cause of, or contributes to, the serious risk to public health:

(c) requisition any property in order to prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health:

(d) destroy any property or any other thing in order to prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health:

(e) require all persons within a specified area to use an alternative drinking water supply:

(f) do emergency work, or direct a territorial authority to do emergency work, to ensure that an alternative supply of drinking water is available to affected persons:

(g) direct a territorial authority to supply drinking water to affected persons (whether in the district of that territorial authority or in the district of another territorial authority):

(h) direct a drinking water supplier to make arrangements to ensure that an alternative drinking water supply is available to affected consumers (for example, by water carrier):

(i) direct the closure of any public place, or any part of a public place:

(j) direct the cancellation of any public event, function, or gathering at any place:

(k) take any other action that Taumata Arowai believes is reasonably necessary to prevent, reduce, or eliminate the serious risk to public health.

 

What we consider

What we consider

Declaring a drinking water emergency is not a decision we take lightly. We need a lot of information to enable us to make this decision.

Serious risk to public health

We need to believe, on reasonable grounds, that there is a serious risk to public health. To help determine this, we work alongside officials from the:

  • Public Health Agency (part of the Ministry of Health, Manatū Hauora)
  • Public Health Service (part of Health New Zealand, Te Whatu Ora), including the local Medical Officer of Health.

Consulting with key groups

Drinking water supplier

The local drinking water supplier is responsible for consulting with key stakeholders, including mana whenua, businesses, partners, once a risk to drinking water is identified.

Us

Before declaring a drinking water emergency, we must consult with the Minister of Local Government.

We may also seek information from a range of agencies and independent experts to inform decision making on actions we would require to address an emergency.

When deciding whether to declare a drinking water emergency, we also need to give effect to Te Mana o te Wai. That often involves early and ongoing engagement with mana whenua about:

  • the risks
  • how they can be practically addressed
  • how best to give effect to relevant Māori interests.

We may also engage with other community members who could be particularly affected.

Understanding of the environmental impacts

If a drinking water emergency is declared, we will not take or require short-term actions that could cause irrevocable, material damage to the environment or cause long-term risks to water supply, and therefore public health.

We need information so we can understand the environmental impact of any proposed actions and how they contrast with the serious risk to public health, including Te Mana o te Wai considerations.

Information needs to be provided from to inform decision making

We need a range of information to understand what steps would help address a serious risk to public health. This could include information on:

  • the water network
  • existing emergency declarations or plans
  • environmental impacts of options
  • powers other agencies could choose to use.

We request this information as a priority when we learn about potential risks to public health. We may also seek research and information from independent experts to inform decision making. 

Steps the supplier is taking to reduce risks

Suppliers have a duty to provide enough safe drinking water to the communities they serve.

We expect drinking water suppliers to recognise the risk of changes to source water availability – for example during drier periods – and to have plans in place to ensure enough safe drinking water can be provided, even if a shortage does happen.

If your water supply is disrupted, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is an emergency

The supply of drinking water can be interrupted in certain circumstances, for example when a supplier needs to carry out essential work on the water network. Usually, an alternative supply of drinking water must be available if an interruption will last longer than eight hours.

A drinking water emergency would only be put in place when there is serious risk to public health

Declaring a drinking water emergency is not a decision we take lightly.

It is for situations where intervention is required to address a serious risk to public health because risks to water quality or quantity have escalated beyond a supplier’s control, or a supplier isn’t otherwise managing them adequately.

However, often risks can be managed by suppliers and agencies working together, without the need to use special powers like these.

Taking a joined-up approach and avoiding duplication

We work alongside other central and local government agencies in emergency situations.

We would only declare a drinking water emergency if other measures aren’t already in place to address a serious risk to public health.

For example, if a civil defence emergency has been declared, work will be underway to ensure safe water is supplied to impacted communities. So, in this instance, we are unlikely to declare a drinking water emergency, unless it adds something to the powers already available because a civil defence emergency has been declared.

We are also mindful that declaring a separate drinking water emergency has the potential to cause unnecessary confusion, so there would need to be a clear reason to do this.